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~ Previous Chapter ~
Welcome to Ihra!
BY THE TIME the ship had docked and been unloaded, ably assisted by Derrain – though less ably by Stirla, while Neryth only supervised – as part-payment for their transport, the late winter evening was closing in. There had barely been enough time to settle the miryhls before dark, let alone look at the new sights. So taking advantage of the Ihran tradition of one night’s hospitality for all, they traipsed to the nearest hostel, stumbled into their room and slept.
For Stirla it was something of an anticlimax to his first day in a new country. After his years in the Rift Riders there were few places he hadn’t visited across the Overworld. The self-enclosed five mountain state of Ihra was one of them.
Luckily, he woke the next morning refreshed and ready for anything. Including shopping.
“But I thought you hated shopping,” Neryth said with a yawn, after Stirla had bounced out of bed and badgered his reluctant companions into wakefulness.
“I hate your kind of shopping,” Stirla admitted as they headed downstairs in search of breakfast. “You know, girly shopping, all clothes and accessories.” Taking a seat at the nearest table, he lounged back in his chair and smiled. “Today we shop like men.”
Derrain winced, while Neryth was far from impressed. “And how do men shop?” she asked, voice drier than dust.
“Efficiently,” Stirla replied, straightening the table settings as a boy appeared with their food, followed by a girl with flagons of water and ale. “We don’t waste time trying on twenty different things before going back to buy the first one half a day later. We go to one shop, find the thing we’re looking for and buy it.”
Neryth acknowledged the jibe about her shopping habits with a sardonic smile. “And what is this thing we’re looking for?” she enquired with exquisite politeness.
Stirla smiled blissfully. “Flight armour.”
With those words he won Neryth over to his cause, but Derrain remained unconvinced. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Hardly,” Stirla scoffed. “This is Ihra, home of innovation, craftsmanship and ingenuity. If there’s one place on the Overworld to look for new armour and weaponry, this is it.”
Derrain shook his head. “Money,” he corrected. “In order to buy things, you need money. Ihrans are not awed by Riders. They know the worth of their skills and they charge accordingly. There are no free samples on these five mountains. Discount is a dirty word.”
A little of Stirla’s enthusiasm dimmed at this unwanted intrusion of reality. “We can still look.” Which didn’t sound nearly as exciting, so he added, “And when we get to Nimbys, we’ll tell the Corps so they can buy it for us.”
Derrain raised his eyebrows, but held his tongue. For which Stirla was grateful. He knew just as well as the student that no matter how amazing their findings, the Corps wouldn’t listen. If they did they’d launch their own investigations to find it cheaper elsewhere, haggle, argue, rethink, reargue, scrimp, save and then produce some hugely inferior product to be used by about ten Riders in a trial scheme that would never prosper. And take five years. However, since Derrain didn’t say any of that, Stirla could pretend he’d be getting his own newly designed flight armour by Midsummer.
As someone to whom financial constraints were a mystery, Neryth missed all this byplay and shot Derrain a cajoling smile. “Come on, Derry, where’s the harm in looking?”
Sighing, Derrain piled his plate with crispy slices of doelyn, fried eggs and a selection of steaming vegetables, evidently fortifying himself for the day ahead. “No harm,” he admitted. “I just don’t fancy your chances, that’s all. Ihra has its own way of doing things.”
Stirla frowned as Neryth asked what he meant by that, but Derrain only shook his head and buttered hanks of still-warm bread to make himself a thick sandwich. Eventually the princess gave up and turned her attention to her own food, leaving them all to eat in thoughtful silence.
When they were finished, Derrain pushed his plate aside and poured himself a mug of water. “How long are you planning to stop here?”
Stirla eyed the ale before opting for water himself. “I haven’t really thought about it. I know time’s in short supply, but it seems a waste not to at least take a look while we’re here. I might never get the chance to visit again.”
“If you say the right words in the right ears, the Ihrans will come to you,” Derrain told him with a smile. “If the business is right, they’ll always find you.”
Neryth looked sceptical as she pushed her own plate aside. “How do we find the right ears?”
“On Ihra the ears are everywhere.” Grinning, Derrain tilted his head slightly to the right.
Stirla glanced that way and chuckled. One table over, the tavern boy was nonchalantly clearing away a nonexistent mess, while his sister swept the floor, coming unobtrusively closer with every swipe. It was said that no one had better hearing than an Ihran closing in on a deal.
“Business is everything on Ihra, and on Ihra everything is everyone’s business.” When the girl looked up, startled by Derrain’s words, he winked and she blushed.
“Derry,” Stirla muttered warningly, catching himself by surprise since he was normally on the other end of such reprimands. Gods, he felt old.
Derrain laughed. “What would any self-respecting Ihran want with a block like me?” he asked, slapping his broad chest. “I take up far too much space.”
Since most Ihrans were broad too, there wasn’t much in this statement to make the girl giggle. Except for the fact that Ihrans were invariably short, rarely making five feet. All the better to save space in the crowded streets of the five mountains.
The serving girl, all four and a half feet of her, was very pretty with an engaging smile, but Derrain was right – the pair of them together would be ridiculous. Ihrans often had a healthy sense of humour, but a man who could barely fit inside one’s house was taking things a little far.
“Strange place,” Neryth murmured.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Derrain warned, shifting back in his chair when the two youngsters came over to clear the table.
Feeling that the day was going to waste, Stirla smiled at the industrious pair and stood up, aware as he did so of how much taller than them he was. And if he hadn’t noticed, the ceiling swiftly reminded him how much taller he was than most in this quiet country.
Rubbing his head, he scowled at Derrain’s chuckles. “As if I didn’t hear you cursing as we left the room this morning,” he grumbled.
“True,” Derrain acknowledged, though the red mark across his forehead was proof enough of the bruise to come. “It’s a regular problem around these parts.”
“Fault own. You take so much room,” the serving girl reproached him flirtatiously in broken Imercish as she topped up their water.
“Ah, no more, thank you,” Stirla said, picking up the pitcher and handing it back to her. “We’re going out now.”
She blinked and her brother frowned.
Frowning himself, Stirla looked at Derrain to explain and realised his student was showing no signs of leaving. “What now?” he demanded.
Derrain spread his hands invitingly. “You’d best sit down again, sir.”
Not liking the sound of that, Stirla did so warily. “Well?”
Looking relieved to see him in his seat again, the tavern boy hurried over with more ale and wiped a cloth over their table. “Customsmaster be to you soon,” he gabbled in stilted Imercish. “No go, please.”
“We will wait here for him,” Derrain solemnly promised in the Western tongue.
Since this was the international language of trade, the boy grinned and repeated, “He will be here soon.”
Nodding a dismissal, Derrain look at Stirla with a wry smile. “You get one night in Ihra before you have to explain yourself. Until you do, you can’t do anything but wait. Ihra has its own ways.”
Which meant no matter how frustrating and time consuming it was, Stirla had no choice but to sit and wait for this mysterious Customsmaster to appear. “So what do I say when he arrives?”
Derrain turned as the door to the taproom opened and a rotund, stern-faced man stepped inside, looking fiercely official from his shining shoes to his correctly positioned hat. Not to mention the great pile of documents in his arms.
The student sighed. “Hello is usually a good start.”
And all Stirla’s happy hopes for the day crumbled into dust.
~ Next Chapter ~
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